Pagan Saxon Resistance to Charlemagne’s Mission

The Saxon Wars of the late 8th and early 9th century are among the most brutal and ruthless conflicts of the early Middle Ages. Beginning with the destruction of the sacred Irminsul in 772 the Frankish Empire and its ruler Charlemagne started the invasion of the Saxon homeland, a then proto-democratic tribal confederation located in present-day Northern Germany. The goal was not only to force the country and its people under the Frankish despotism, but also to eradicate all pagan traditions, shown unvarnished in Charlemagne’s famous dictum, that the only choice left for the Saxons would either be baptism or death. What followed was a fierce resistance war fought by an indigenous people against a superior empire that took over 30 years. The last stronghold of Germanic Paganism south of Scandinavia was not easily overthrown and even Frankish propagandist Einhard admitted that it was “the longest, cruelest and most strenuous war the people of the Franks ever fought”.

Yet, somehow the scientific reception of this dark chapter of early Medieval history often seems to portray the Frankish side in a suspiciously positive way. This is not only noticeable in German research, but especially there. Some historians even go as far as to claim that the number of 4.500 people murdered at the Massacre of Verden must have been a typo and that in reality it must have been far less.1 Others claim that the brutal punitive laws of the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae (like the death sentence for cremating deceased relatives) were never actually enforced.2 Many of these speculations seem to aim at maintaining a clean image of Charlemagne as “the father of Europe” by de facto whitewashing the history.

To counter this biased view of the Saxon Wars and the Christianization of the Saxon people Prof. Carole Cusack from the University of Sydney looked at the topic from a different angle by comparing it with contemporary cases of indigenous religions being subjugated and deprived of their culture by colonialist empires and missionary world religions. Her article can be accessed via ResearchGate following this link:

Pagan Saxon Resistance to Charlemagne’s Mission: “Indigenous” Religion and “World” Religion in the Early Middle Ages


What is “known” about the interplay between Paganism and Christianity in the Middle Ages grows more problematic with every new scholarly contribution. Recently it has become fashionable to assert that nothing can be known of the earlier oral tradition of Pagans, as all that remain are Christian texts written by Christian clergy who drew upon Biblical models such as Canaanite “idolatry” to depict the Paganism of medieval peoples like the Anglo-Saxons and the Frisians of whose religion they were ignorant. Extreme versions of this position deny the existence of Paganism entirely; this is because all the texts were produced by Christians, and other potential sources of information about Paganism (archaeological evidence, comparative Indo-European parallels, and folklore) are deemed inadmissible. The encounter between literate, urban Christianity and non-literate rural Paganism in early medieval Europe resembles contemporary cases where the claims of “indigenous religions” (e.g. legal actions to establish native title mounted by peoples who were non-literate at the time they were colonized by Europeans) and “world religions” (e.g., missionary religion directly or indirectly facilitating colonialist enterprises) clash. Yet this is rarely recognized within the academic disciplines of history and medieval studies. This article considers the struggle between the Pagan Saxons and the Frankish Christian army of Charlemagne in the late eighth and early ninth centuries as a case study of an indigenous people and religion being crushed by a universalizing world religion promoted by a globalizing colonialist empire. It argues that medieval Christian missionary and colonialist programs were intended to bring about the deliberate obliteration of indigenous Pagan cultures, a fact which is rarely recognized by scholars.

  1. Hägermann even goes so far as to claim that only a few dozen were killed: Dieter Hägermann, Karl der Große. Herrscher des Abendlandes (Berlin 2000) 214ff. ^
  2. A good example is Becher, who is obviously trying to gloss over the draconian impact of these laws: Matthias Becher, Karl der Große. Herrscher des Abendlandes ⁵(München 2007) 63–64. ^